March 17, 2012

Horns win a thriller in Norman

When the Sooners and Longhorns get together, fireworks can happen no matter what the situation is, and there was certainly a lot of emotion in Friday night's Big 12 opener. After playing their best, most complete game of the season in Tuesday's win against Texas State, Augie Garrido wondered if his team could take that mentality on the road. Well, against No. 22 Oklahoma (11-7, 0-1) in the series opener, the Longhorns (8-8, 1-0) carried that strong play and mental toughness on the road, which led to a 7-6 win in 12 innings.

Things didn't start well for the Longhorns and starter Nathan Thornhill. Before the sophomore could really get settled in, Oklahoma took him deep twice to take a 4-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning. The Sooners seized momentum, and looked like they would be able to potentially bury the Horns early while also knocking Thornhill out of the game. Not so fast.

In the top of the third, Texas pushed a run across. Jordan Etier led off the inning with a single, and Mark Payton followed with one of his own. Texas' choice to bunt Tim Maitland turned into a force out at third, but both runners moved into scoring position on an Erich Weiss strikeout. With two outs, Jonathan Walsh hit a hard grounder at the third baseman, which was knocked down, but his throw to first wasn't handled allowing Texas to make it 4-1.

The Horns made it a 4-2 game in the top of the fifth when Erich Weiss ripped his first homer of the year, a solo shot, over the wall in right. Later, the Longhorns would take the lead in the seventh. Maitland was hit by a pitch to start the inning, swiped second, and scored on Weiss' RBI double that found just enough open space by the third baseman along the left field line. Texas tied the game when Walsh plated Weiss with a single to left, and he advanced to second on an error. In a 4-4 game, Walsh was bunted over to third, Jacob Felts walked, and Kevin Lusson lifted a deep fly ball to left, which allowed Walsh to tag and give the Horns a 5-4 lead.

With one out in the bottom of the ninth, Corey Knebel left a mistake fastball up in the zone and Cody Reine hit it over the wall in right to tie the game. It was a no-doubter, which was clear by Reine's flip of the bat right away, and as the OU team met the outfielder near home plate, some words were exchanged. That led to the benches clearing briefly, and at the end of the inning, they nearly did again.

Oklahoma threatened to win the game in the bottom of the 11th. However, with two runners in scoring position, Texas intentionally walked the bases loaded and that led to an inning-ending double play. Immediately in the next inning, Texas took the lead when with two outs Walsh ripped a line drive, two-RBI double that found the chalk in left field.

Milner gave up a solo shot to start the bottom of the 12th to make it a 7-6 UT lead. The southpaw retired the next batter, and Texas called on freshman Parker French to shut the door. French lit up the radar gun hitting 97 MPH on four of his nine pitches, and retired the only two batters he faced to save a big win for the Horns.

Key moment in the game
In a 5-5 game in the bottom of the 11th inning, the Longhorns played smart baseball. With two runners in scoring position, Milner intentionally walked Reine to load the bases. The move put a lot of faith into the veteran Milner as well as Texas' defense, and it paid off. Milner got the routine double play ball to Weiss, and he started the 5-2-3 inning-ending double play. As soon as Silver caught the throw from the catcher, the UT bench erupted and met the defense in front of the dugout. The huge swing in momentum led to the UT victory.

Battle on the hill
Winning pitcher - Hoby Milner, Texas (2-3)
Losing pitcher - Jordan John, Oklahoma (3-3)
Save - Parker French (2)

Obviously, Thornhill experienced a bit of a rough start giving up four runs on two homers in the first inning. His location was way off, and the sophomore was leaving the ball up and over the plate. However, Thornhill bucked down, started pounding the strike zone, and his changeup was getting all sorts of swings and misses. Once he began to get ahead with much better command and location, the Sooners simply couldn't hit the sophomore because of that nasty change to go with the command in pitcher's counts. It looked ugly at first, but Thornhill kept his team in the game and put together a great effort. He gave up four runs in 6.1 innings on four hits, one walk, and he punched out seven.

Knebel simply made one mistake, and unfortunately for him, that mistake resulted in a solo shot to tie the game in the ninth inning. The sophomore's fastball was hitting 96 MPH consistently on the radar gun, and although his command was a tad off at times, he was locating that pitch well outside of that one mistake. His hard curveball was a pitch he used well because he was getting on top of it, spinning it, and driving it down in the zone. Knebel tossed 2.2 innings and gave up one run on three hits and struck out two.

Like his teammate Knebel, Milner made just one mistake as well, which resulted in a solo homer. However, the left-hander made big pitches in key situations, including forcing that huge ground ball with one out and the bases loaded. He seems to be throwing his best baseball as a reliever. Milner gave up just the one run on three hits, one walk, and struck out two.

French retired the last two batters in a one-run game with a strikeout and a groundout.

Breaking down the batter's box
Star of the game - Any time you can get the game-winning hit in the first game against your rivals in conference play, you're going to be the star of the game, especially in an extra-innings affair that included the benches clearing temporarily. Walsh went 2-for-7 with one run scored, three RBI and struck out once. In his key at bat late in the game, he looked as mentally locked in as he has at any point this season with great balance, little head movement, and outstanding pitch recognition.

Frustrating day at the office - Oklahoma's three-hole hitter Max White went 0-for-6 with a strikeout and stranded one runner on base.

Dustin's extra bases
Payton was laying bunts down, making hard contact, fighting off pitches late in the count, and was generally just finding any way on base by putting the ball in play.

Although he struck out twice, Weiss added that solo blast to right. His RBI double was actually a result of getting jammed and somehow using an inside-outside swing to hit it the other way. It wasn't the best he's looked this year, but it definitely wasn't the worst.

From the right side against the lefties, Etier really looked dialed in at the plate. The senior went 3-for-4 with a walk, really squared the ball up well more than once, and his weight distribution looked good in the box.


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